The trainee vicar who rowed in The Boat Race
The trainee vicar who rowed in The Boat Race

Every September 40 trialists line up at Oxford University Boat Club for their shot at ticking off one of rowing’s hottest bucket list items – victory at The Boat Race. Originating in 1829, it’s one of British sport’s oldest grudge matches.

Competitors for Oxford and Cambridge race on the Thames, aiming to cast their institution’s shade of blue over the Trophy. But these competitors are also academics with ambition – alumni of The Boat Race have gone on to be influential leaders in all walks of life, two of them even had a hand in founding Facebook!

This year, sitting in the two seat of Isis – the Oxford reserve boat, was a competitor with a somewhat different ambition, he’s training to be a vicar. We spoke to Chris Rimmer two days after he rowed to victory in his second Boat Race with the Oxford reserve crew.

What was the build up like?

It’s really competitive, you start the training cycle off with the first erg (rowing machine) test – if you make the cut off then you’re in, at least for the time being! Then it’s a few weeks of preseason before the academic term kicks off, and the intensity really ramps up.

We train twice a day six days a week around study, for me that’s getting up early for an indoor session then straight back in for chapel, I’m a vicar in training after all! In the afternoon we’re out on the water. It’s a punishing schedule but there’s also opportunity to spend time relaxing with teammates, rowing involves a lot of time in the minibus and getting boats ready, so we get to chill out together a lot as well. Overall, it’s a huge build up for 17 minutes of effort!

How does your faith impact your rowing?

I’ve always tried to involve God in everything, in sport, especially the higher you go, it can start to dominate your life, and identity. Rowing is all encompassing; it really does take over your mind because you're constantly thinking about selection. You’re being monitored, under the microscope of the coach, all your stroke profile data from the boat, your power output, your heart rate, and there’s always the next erg test around the corner – it’s becoming a scientific process.

Both years at Oxford I’ve been in a selection scrap for the final seat in the boat, which is extremely tough mentally, it’s been important to keep God as number one through that. Remembering that there’s a bigger picture, that I’m defined as a beloved son of God, has been a cornerstone for me through times of real stress and anxiety leading up to the race – I can’t really express enough how much the Lord has helped me through rowing.

Talk us through race day?

It was crazy, we were favourites, but last year we were tipped to win and ended up losing in a difficult race. This year the pressure and atmosphere was immense, we spent the week in London prepping, focussing on the race. I’ve never felt nerves like it I didn’t sleep at all the night before. On race day I tried to soak up the atmosphere, 250,000 spectators on the Thames, the BBC there, the hype was quite something. I wanted to keep my eyes open and soak it all up and try to involve God in it, to use this opportunity to really glorify him.

"I identified a window, just before the coin toss, where there was a gap... I prayed for everyone before we raced was a really special quiet time within a day of madness."

Our pre-race schedule was prescribed to the minute, but I identified a window, just before the coin toss, where there was a gap. I’d said to the team that I’d love to pray for everyone before we raced, I pray before every race so they knew it was coming, one of the Olympians turned to me and said ‘Rimmer, will you do a prayer for us?’. We turned the music off and I said a quick prayer, it was a really special quiet time within a day of madness.

Then it was straight into the coin toss, the starting flag, and 17 minutes of pure focus and pain. It was brilliant to punch out ahead and get the win, especially after last year, and then turn to watch the first boat take victory as well, the celebrations afterwards were huge!

What’s it like being a Christian in that incredibly competitive environment?

Being part of the boat club a great joy for me, even amongst the pressure of selection and performance. I’ve felt that my rowing has just been a small part of what God has called me to do with my time at Oxford. I’m aware that the position I’m in is such a privilege, the people I’m training alongside will go on to be leaders in all walks of life, I realise that my witness in the boat club, to make disciples there, could have a profound impact. Funnily enough I’m the social secretary at the club, which might seem odd for a vicar in training, but that’s been such a fun thing to do, to try and bring kingdom culture to an environment where drinking culture is the norm.

"I had to give a Chapel talk at Oriel College, and one of the boys found out - in fact he invited the whole club"

There’s been good opportunity to share my faith as well, as part of my degree I had to give a Chapel talk at Oriel College, and one of the boys found out - in fact he invited the whole club, they all came and sat in the front row! I’d had conversations before but to be able to share the gospel clearly and not hold anything back was an amazing opportunity, an incredible privilege. I think getting to do that and praying with the group before The Boat Race were the highlights of my rowing at Oxford actually.

So what’s up next for you?

I have ambitions for the rest of the season, I’d love to win at Henley later in the year but I’m not sure what I’ll do after that – I won’t be eligible to compete in The Boat Race next year so I might step away from that level of competition which will be a big transition. I’ll continue to be involved in sport though as I progress through my vicar training, I absolutely love sport, especially team sport, I think I’ll be playing sport in some form for the rest of my life!

Images courtesy of AllMarkOne

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